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What does the WGA Strike Mean for Art Department?

May 26, 2023 10:55
3 minutes read 851 0

What does the WGA Strike Mean for Art Department?

Beth Bell, IATSE Set Decorator at the WGA Strike
Beth Bell at the WGA Strike in Washington D.C.

"It was the threat of AI to our entire industry that put me in my car, on the metro, and then on the street in DC this past Tuesday."

Last week, I attended the WGA Strike in Washington DC.

I stood in solidarity at a “leafletting event” with my WGA kin as an IATSE Studio Mechanic, Set Dresser, Set Decorator, Set Dec Gang Boss, Draper and Product Placement Agency Owner.

The WGA Film and Television Writers have been striking for a few weeks. Picket lines have popped up in big production hubs like Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, and New Mexico, to name the top hubs.  Also in DC in WGA were SAG-AFTRA,  IATSE, AFL-CIO, and labor activists. The MPAA hosted a screening of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”.

We weren’t officially picketing, but we did aim to inform.  IATSE, the WGA, and SAG-AFTRA provided us with pithy signs.  Political reps from the unions, armed with leaflets, spoke with interested bystanders.  Incidentally, the MPAA is housed in the same building as the Ronald Reagan Foundation, which was also having an event that evening, so we also interacted with a few of those people. Ironically, the MPAA is right across the street from the AFL-CIO headquarters.

I spoke with an IATSE animator angling to organize at Disney.

I also met a WGA writer, who had lived in LA and worked in writers’ rooms for numerous shows, including one that I watched and enjoyed and that my mission-based product placement agency, Green Product Placement, had placed in. We had a really robust turnout of around 70 people, and we heard so many honking car horns in support of our message. There was a real “we’re all in the together” vibe.

It was incredibly satisfying , after spending weeks feeling fairly helpless about the whole situation and having not had any real paid production work since mid-February. I do the bulk of my union production work here in the Mid-Atlantic, DC and Virginia and Baltimore, where I’m based.

Green Product Placement works with productions based all over the US and Canada, along with a few in the UK. The business has been struggling since the pandemic production shutdowns of 2020, but this year has seen the worst radio silence since March through August 2020.

Why should a Set Dresser care if writers get residuals?

Well, there’s the “rising tide lifts all boats” general point of view, but, truly we ARE ALL , historically, in this together. Just as IATSE workers like grip, electric, art department, costume, hair, and makeup cared about the plight of woefully underpaid IATSE script coordinators when IATSE had our strike authorization vote in early autumn 2021.

Most working writers aren’t mega-millions-earning showrunners. They must have the ability to make a decent living, writing the material that we then get to bring to life through visual aesthetics.

We care about the plight of writers to be able to live and pay their bills while doing their craft, but it was the threat of AI to our entire industry that put me in my car, on the metro, and then on the street in DC. 

The week of May 2, 2023,  as the writers officially took to the picket lines, I found myself doing a deep dive into understanding the threat of AI, that they had so wisely put into their contract demands. And what I discovered now lives in the back of my fear-addled brain, right next to the very real threat of climate change. The first thing I did that week was join a Facebook Group, Hollywood Strike Hub//The War Room, which is an unofficial WGA strike and information hub.

I had seen so many AI graphic arts portraits that people were making. I refused to do it myself because even then I knew that the reworking of all of this art by AI was essentially stealing from human artists to make this customized art.

But when I discovered the “The AI Dilemma” a presentation by the non-profit, The Center for Humane Technology, that I became overwhelmed by the very real threat to human society this unproven and unchecked software could have on human society.

Could AI allow a paralyzed person to walk again, cure cancer or generate a plastic-eating enzyme that will break down plastic?

Certainly, perhaps. But recall that as social media scaled exponentially with no guard rails in place, the results allowed us keep up with the lives of our friends in Croatia, it also resulted in election tampering and amplified racism and fascism.

Unchecked AI could be a real threat to on life on earth, dwarfing the societal damage by social media.

In February, I read with a combination of curiosity and bemused horror, an article in The New York Times where a reporter had a conversation with Bing’s AI ChatBot where it encouraged him to leave his wife.

This essay, however, is to speak to the very real threat it is to our jobs and the very craft of film and tv making overall, and why we MUST support the writers, because like Vanity Fair so cheekily explained, they’re like the front line foot soldiers fighting the tide of automated robots.

 

Justine Bateman, star of “Family Ties”  is SAG-AFTRA, WGA and DGA, but also a developer with a computer science degree and published author, has been very vocal about this threat to our industry.

Bateman penned this piece for Newsweek and her her Instagram posts illustrate how real this threat is. She posted footage showing a female, computer-generated woman,  switching ethnicities at the push of a button. I’m sure AI will be a real sticking point in the SAG-AFTRA contract negotiations and they’ve already had a strike vote authorization. Their contract is set to renew in early June.

 

So, what about Art Department?

AI can create whole entire worlds, which is sets, props, costume, and lighting just through some text prompts. Below, this humorous fake Star Wars, imagined by Wes Anderson, illustrates just that.

Those who watch the “Wes Anderson Star Wars” trailer above, and  “The Great Gatsby” below, might think “but they look weird, clunky, and generic and the voiceover text sounds so unimaginative and clumsy”.

While that may be true right now, the thing about the current state of AI, and part of what completely shocked me about the “AI Dilemma” presentation is how quickly AI is learning. It employs something called exponential machine learning. For us non-computer nerd, non-math nerd production laypeople, it basically means that it improves upon its own abilities so quickly, that AI learning is like an immediate upward trajectory on a diagram, not a gradual one.

We learned what exponential growth meant at the start of the pandemic.

It meant that one person infected with Covid-19 could pass the disease on to everyone that they came in contact, but then those people could do the same, turning one infected person into hundreds. So that clunky AI making deep fake photos where people have an arm coming out of their chest, made like 6 months ago, well, it’s already much better. Many of you might remember the realistic photo of the Pope wearing a big, white designer puffer jacket that came out back in March. No real-life pope or designer puffer jacket is required.

AI Text to Video Movie Trailer

Many futurists believe that in  a few years, we’ll have content on demand, to our own specifications.

Say I type in some prompts that I’d like to see a version of the Gwyneth Paltrow 1990s alternative reality rom com “Sliding Doors” starring 30-something me and my husband and so long as it has the data to do it, in this case, our images and our voices. AI will be able to create my content in minutes with no actors, no costumes, hair and makeup, sets, camera, lights, props, teamster drivers or production offices.

What the WGA writers have done, by putting AI guardrails in place on their contract demands, helps ALL of us in the industry and even outside our industry. Do we want the content we consume to be created by what many have truthfully dubbed “Plagiarism Software” ?

Or do we want it created using the time-tested crafts of filmmaking, done by actual human beings with creativity, awareness, compassion, and talent?

Much like how live theatre has become a more niche form of entertainment following the arrival of film and tv on the scene, I don’t want traditionally filmed entertainment to become a niche art form, and I’m fairly certain that most people actually creating in our industry don’t want to see that happen either.

"We’ve gotten used to consuming streaming content on phones, tweaking reality via filters, image editing and other manipulation software, that we have become much more accepting towards content that isn’t real."

So many members of the AMPTP/Studio Management are not actually former content creators or filmmakers themselves; they don’t care about this issue.

They’re money-focused tech bros with no thoughts on the greater risks of this technology being rolled out before we, as a society, have a complete grasp of how it works. The fact that AI is able to keep “improving” upon itself so quickly is the greatest area of concern. 

So what can we do? We can, and should, support the writers, and likely soon, the SAG-AFTRA members, in their fight.  If affiliated workers and unions are allowed on the picket lines near you (and so long as there are 2 each WGA picketers present at the line), you should be allowed to join, but please check with your business agent or the strike captain.

Show up, support and march.

Share the information about the dangers of unchecked and unregulated AI with friends, family, and colleagues.

And maybe start thinking about how you might be able to transfer your skills and expertise to an industry that will continue to exist once “AI Everything” becomes the norm. But, let’s not give up without a fight.

Picture of Beth Bell

Beth Bell

Beth Bell is a member of Art Cube, a 33 year member of IATSE, Founder of mission-based product placement agency, Green Product Placement, a business consultant and trained Climate Reality Leader.

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